Posted on Aug. 7, 2014 (
The health benefits of feeding infants human milk are well established. For a baby born ill or prematurely, they can be life-saving.
That’s why the Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital, which admits more than 600 sick newborns a year, has started collecting breast milk donations from mothers who produce more than they need.
Where does the milk go?
Three local women have participated since the hospital recently became an official human milk depot.
Tacoma General sends the milk in frozen batches to the Rocky Mountain Children’s Hospital’s Mothers’ Milk Bank in Denver. There it is screened, pasteurized and used to fill orders from various hospitals nationwide that care for high-risk, usually premature, babies.
“The demand is growing and I know we will need more milk in the future,” said Laraine Lockhart-Borman, director of the Denver facility. “There are more hospitals and they’re increasing their orders.”
Mothers’ Milk Bank has operated for 30 years. It is the oldest of only 13 human milk banks in the country, all regulated by the Human Milk Banking Association of America.
As important as as donating blood
Donating human milk takes about as much effort as donating blood. It’s just as vital, too.
“In the same way you donate blood when you’re well to save a life in the future, you can give milk to help infants who are sick, or whose mother can’t breastfeed, or are out of milk,” said Judith Withers, director of the Tacoma General NICU.
“Human milk unneeded or extra from one mother will be life-saving to a fragile infant who cannot tolerate cow milk formula.”
Also like blood, human milk supplies are susceptible to shortages. The last one happened in 2012 — the year the American Academy of Pediatrics restated that breastfeeding and human milk are the healthiest ways to nourish infants, and that "all premature babies should receive human milk."
“We had to really increase our outreach efforts, because we experienced a significant, long-term shortage,” Lockhart-Borman said. “We never want that to happen again; it was scary.”
A 'baby-friendly' hospital
The World Health Organization has accredited Tacoma General as a Baby-Friendly Hospital, meaning it advocates breastfeeding and human milk because abundant scientific evidence points to lower risks for certain diseases and improved health outcomes for both babies and mothers. The hospital is one of only three in Washington state to earn the accreditation.
NICU registered nurse Sarah Newport said the unit's current feeding protocol is that all babies born under 34 weeks receive donated milk instead of formula if the mother is unable to provide breast milk, or doesn't quite have enough.
"Just one ounce of breast milk can feed a tiny preemie for a whole day," said Newport, a certified lactation consultant. "Breast milk donation is more than just a donation; it's a gift. A gift of health to a baby and a gift of peace of mind to his family.”
How to donate
To donate to the Tacoma General Mothers’ Milk Depot:
- Call Mothers’ Milk Bank at the Rocky Mountain Children’s Hospital at 303-869-1888, or toll free at 877-458-5503 for a phone screening with a lactation consultant
- The milk bank will mail a kit of paperwork and tubes for a blood draw
- Call the Tacoma General NICU’s lactation desk to make an appointment to draw your blood and drop off your excess breast milk at 253-403-5525.
There is no cost to the donor for lab work and shipments.